Thursday, 25 July 2013

What's your story, morning glory?

Jumu’ah Khutbah (Friday Sermon), 19 April 2013, Rasooli CentreThe original title was “Changing the Narrative: Whether we desire to change ourselves or our societies, it starts with a story.”

There are these two interesting references in the Qur’an:
We relate to you their story in truth: they were youth who believed in their Lord, and We advanced them in guidance.
[Sura Kahf 18:13]
We relate to you the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to you this (portion of the) Qur'an: before this, you too was among those who knew it not.
[Sura Yusuf, 12:3]
If you were to ask me who I am, depending on the time, my mood and what I think you might know about me, I will tell you a story. It might be about what I doing right now, how it is that I am in Pretoria, where I come from, what I have done… But it will be a story. I would need to think too much about the story/stories because I have told it many times to different people. Even if I were to just simply say, “Adli Jacobs,” the rest of the story will play itself out in my head because I have made enough repetitions in the past; I have repeated them over and over so many times. We make a thikr (or a mantra) with the stories that we hold. I used to be so irritated when my parents repeated their stories over and over. Now I am doing the same.

But this is what we do as human beings. We are spinners and consumers of stories. No wonder the media industry with its television soap operas and movies and reality shows are so popular. These are the new storytellers! And how we love stories… We add tails to stories and embellish them to make them interesting if we find the originals too boring. I have come to believe that no one and nothing escapes the embrace of the story. In fact, right now, standing here in front of you, it is quite natural to ask yourself, “But what is his story?” Yeah, I see you looking at me…
What is his story? What is her story? Our entire lives, from when we are little, we are surrounded by stories. You could say that stories pervade everything. Our own lives, how we see others, how we see our communities, our nation, the world, are constructed in Story. Starting the South African story with Jan van Riebeek and the arrival of the first Dutch settlers is a choice we make when we recount the history of our nation. But even if we were to choose to start further back than the arrival of colonialism, or decide to include areas previously excluded, we must realise that the narrative of the nation is a construction. We make choices in how we frame a country or a people.

In a sense, we are also trapped within the stories we tell and retell. I am a mess today because my father would beat me. He was a harsh man, he never acknowledged me, always called me a loser. And as a result I am a bad father to my kids, or a bad husband, or unreliable, or whatever… Through the stories we hold to our chests, we limit our own greatness or justify our own arrogance or our own racism. We say things like, “I am always a stickler for detail, I am fussy, I don’t suffer fools…” or “Women are always bad drivers”, “Blacks have no idea how to run a business which is why SA is in a mess…” These are stories we invented partly based on truth or reality and partly based on very limited perception.
It is like driving on the highway and a car swerves right in front of you. You lean on your hooter (or honk your horn) to vent your anger. You take a quick glance at the make of the car or maybe the number plate or the gender or race and we make up a story to explain the other driver’s lack of manners. We have no idea what the actual reason was for that driver’s behaviour and may never know. But we are going to go home and repeat that story to whoever cares to listen including our one-sided analysis.

This phenomenon is also acknowledged in the Qur’an:
(Some) say they were three, the dog being the fourth among them; (others) say they were five, the dog being the sixth,- doubtfully guessing at the unknown; (yet others) say they were seven, the dog being the eighth. Say thou: ‘My Lord knows best their number; It is but few that know their (real case).’ Enter not, therefore, into controversies concerning them, except on a matter that is clear, nor consult any of them about (the affair of) the Sleepers. [Sura Kahf, 18:22]
There is this story of a guy who could not control his gossiping tongue and went to see a Shaykh for guidance. He was instructed to collect feathers and release it on windy day from the minaret overlooking the city. When he returned to declare success, the Shaykh said to him, “Now go and collect those feathers once more.” “But this is impossible,” said the man, “they are now so widely spread!” “Precisely!” said the Shaykh.

From an Islamic, more spiritual perspective, there is this idea that we are all part of bigger, sacred story that overrides all other stories. I love the Sufi notion that says that our essential story, our actual story, our only story is the fact that we were created in a timeless, spaceless place of bliss and then were sent down to discover the “hidden treasure”. We have been sent on a quest (an adventure story?) to discover this treasure and to return from where we came from. This is the story of Adam and Eve. This is the story of US. This is what is reflected in the Qur’an in Sura Tin (Chapter of the Fig, 95):

By the Fig and the Olive, (1)
And the Mount of Sinai, (2)
And this City of security,- (3)
We have indeed created humanity in the best of moulds, (4)
Then do We abase him (to be) the lowest of the low,- (5)
Except such as believe and do righteous deeds: For they shall have a reward unfailing. (6)
Then what can, after this, contradict thee, as to the judgment (to come)? (7)
Is not Allah the wisest of judges? (8)

So, what shall your story be?